In the gospel according to Ron Howard, absolutely everything is ominous when it’s undertaken at the Vatican. Whether it’s a member of the curia strolling down a dark hallway of the Holy See, or somebody steeping tea in the papal breakfast nook, the director who has brought Dan Brown’s novels to the cineplex loads down the moment with portent and peril. It’s a world in which you can’t help but imagine that even the gift shops are flooded with gloomy light.
Howard’s first adaptation of a Brown bestseller, The DaVinci Code, was a purgatorial mess. His second stab, Angels and Demons, ratchets up the excitement, cuts back on some of DaVinci‘s convoluted anti-Catholicism, and manages to be a mindless, mildly entertaining and lucrative blockbuster for the Memorial Day weekend crowds.
I’ve faithfully avoided Brown’s books despite their popularity, and after seeing the two films, I feel better about this decision all the time (although it made me a lonely man in airports, circa 2005.) Brown seems to have constructed his stories through focus groups, cobbling together elements from other popular, more inventive sources. Take a healthy serving of Indiana Jones, add a dash of the energy-technology-in-the-wrong-hands intrigue of The Saint for seasoning, and presto: you get Angels and Demons.
But compared to the torpid, interminable plod of its predecessor, The DaVinci Code, the film version of Angels and Demons might as well be Raiders of the Lost Ark. There’s enough action and arcana to keep your eyelids open this time. You could even call it a thriller. The violin-heavy soundtrack by Hans Zimmer has only one gear — relentless — which withers your nerves into submission, like it or not.
Trouble in Catholic land, again
The film starts, like DaVinci, with trouble in Catholic land. A beloved pope has just died. (Couldn’t they have at least tried something more imaginative than a John Paul II look-alike?) Ahead of the conclave, four leading cardinals have been kidnapped, ostensibly by a secret society of science-lovers still honked about the Galileo trial. Harvard professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is once again called in to crack the case and prevent the cardinals’ deaths. There to help him is another charming, raven-haired foreign lady, and another spate of conveniently placed runes and ancient Roman manholes. Langdon closes in on the truth, dodging bullets and getting terribly little help from the Italian police force. (At least they didn’t go on strike.)
Also, there is something called antimatter, being produced at the CERN supercollider in Switzerland, which can be used as a big-time explosive. None of this — not a wit — makes any sense. I couldn’t grasp why the bad guys needed antimatter instead of just an old-fashioned bomb.
But nihil obstat. Whether it’s the kind of compliment Howard wants to hear or not, Angels and Demons is that rare movie whose utter silliness didn’t really bother me. Its ambitions beyond ticket sales are so mild, and its efforts at profundity are so half-hearted, that I couldn’t hold much against it. Even when the film hits on the heavier theme of science versus religion, it hardly seems interested. All we really get of the issue is a heated, ten-second exchange in St. Peter’s Square about stem cells, and a short spiel about reconciling the two sides from Ewan MacGregor’s bright-eyed young priest character. (It’s a sort of “Mr. Smith Goes to Vatican City” moment.)
This begs an important question: if a summer film is so indifferent to its own deeper themes, why on earth are we debating the finer points of its treatment of the Church? Five years from now, Tom Hanks won’t even remember he was in Angels and Demons, and yet Catholics are in an uproar over the significance of the movie franchise’s unflattering portrait of their faith. Given DaVinci‘s central subject matter, the protests weren’t unwarranted. And it might be fair to ask rhetorically what other religious community Hollywood would ever make a similar movie about. (I have my own doubts that there are any.) But anything more is wasted breath on the second installment.
Besides, Ron Howard is anxious to kiss and make up this time around. He made a special plea to Catholics before the new movie’s premiere, and he even plays nice with an ending involving a new, moderate pope taking the balcony at St. Peter’s before a jubilant crowd. The gloom is gone! The new pope’s not a criminal!
Given all of the Catholic outcry that surrounded Angels and Demons‘ release, I actually found myself let down by this ending — to me, it seems like a pretty craven effort at endearment. After all, if you’re making a sequel to a film that depicts the Catholic Church as a cesspool of fraud and machinations from the apostolic get-go, why shift to a lower gear of bald prejudice? They should’ve made the papacy (and Jesus, with his wife and kids) responsible for global warming, say. Or the JFK assassination. What the heck — the possibilities are endless; I’m sure Dan Brown is hard at work on the third installment with his next focus group, right at this very moment.